Going Postal

Page 18


'Let the Mail be tested!' bellowed the all-commanding voice. Groat's hand plunged into the bag while Moist staggered in a circle, and he raised a letter triumphantly. 'I, probationary Senior— Oh, excuse me just a tick, Worshipful Master . . .' Moist felt his head being pulled down to the level of Groat's mouth, and the old man whispered: 'Was that probationary or full Senior Postman, sir?'

'What? Oh, full, yes, full!' said Moist, as iced water filled his shoes. 'Definitely!'

'I, Senior Postman Groat, do declare the mail to be as dry as a bone, Worshipful Master!' shouted Groat triumphantly. This time the cracked voice of authority held a hint of gleeful menace. 'Then let him . . . deliver it!

In the stifling gloom of the hood, Moist's sense of danger barred the door and hid in the cellar. This was where the unseen chanters leaned forward. This was where it stopped being a game. 'I haven't actually written anything down, mark you,' he began, swaying. 'Careful now, careful,' hissed Groat, ignoring him. 'Nearly there! There's a door right in front of you, there's a letter box— Could he take a breather, Worshipful Master? He caught his head a nasty crack—'

'A breather, Brother Groat? So's you can give him another hint or two, maybe?' said the presiding voice, with scorn. 'Worshipful Master, the rituals says that the Unfranked Man is allowed a—' Groat protested. 'This Unfranked Man walketh alone! On his tod, Tolliver Groat! He doesn't want to be a Junior Postman, oh no, nor even a Senior Postman, not him! He wants to achieve the rank of Postmaster all in one go! We're not playing Postman's Knock here, Junior Postman Groat! You talked us into this! We are not mucking about! He's got to show he's worth it!'

'That's Senior Postman Groat, thank you so very much!' Groat yelled. 'You ain't a proper Senior Postman, Tolliver Groat, not if he fails the test!'

'Yeah? And who says you're Worshipful Master, George Aggy? You're only Worshipful Master 'cos you got first crack at the robes!' The Worshipful Master's voice become a little less commanding. 'You're a decent bloke, Tolliver, I'll give you that, but all this stuff you spout about a real postmaster turning up one day and making it all better is just . . . silly! Look at this place, will you? It's had its day. We all have. But if you're going to be pig-headed, we'll do it according to the book of rules!'

'Right, then!' said Groat. 'Right, then!' echoed the Worshipful Master. A secret society of postmen, Moist thought. I mean, why? Groat sighed, and leaned closer. 'There's going to be a bloody row after we're finished,' he hissed to Moist. 'Sorry about this, sir. Just post the letter. I believe in you, sir!' He stepped back. In the dark night of the hood, stunned and bleeding, Moist shuffled forward, arms outstretched. His hands found the door, and ran across it in a vain search for the slot. Eventually they found it a foot above the ground. Okay, okay, ram a damn letter in there and get this stupid pantomime over with. But it wasn't a game. This wasn't one of those events where everyone knew that old Harry just had to mouth the right words to be the latest member of the Loyal Order of Chair Stuffers. There were people out there taking it seriously. Well, he just had to post a letter through a slot, didn't he? How hard could that b— Hold on, hold on . . . wasn't one of the men who'd led him down here missing the tips of his fingers on one hand? Suddenly, Moist was angry. It even sheared through the pain from his chin. He didn't have to do this! At least, he didn't have to do it like this. It would be a poor lookout if he wasn't a better player of les buggeures risibles than this bunch of old fools! He straightened up, stifling a groan, and pulled off the hood. There was still darkness all around him, but it was punctuated by the glow from the doors of a dozen or so dark lanterns. '

'ere, 'e's taken the hood off!' someone shouted. 'The Unfranked Man may choose to remain in darkness,' said Moist. 'But the Postman loves the Light.' He pitched the voice right. It was the key to a thousand frauds. You had to sound right, sound like you knew what you were doing, sound like you were in charge. And, while he'd spoken gibberish, it was authentic gibberish.

The door of a lantern opened a little wider and a plaintive voice said, '

'ere, I can't find that in the book. Where's he supposed to say that?' You had to move quickly, too. Moist wrapped the hood round his hand and levered up the flap of the letter box. With his other hand he grabbed a random letter out of the bag, flicked it through the slot and then pulled his makeshift glove away. It ripped as though cut by shears. 'Postmen, what is the Third Oath?' shouted Groat triumphantly. 'All together, lads: Strewth, what do they make these flaps out of, razor blades?' There was a resentful silence. 'He never had 'is 'ood on,' muttered a robed figure. 'Yes he did! He wrapped it round his hand! Tell me where it says he can't do that!' screamed Groat. 'I told you! He's the One we've been waiting for!'

'There's still the final test,' said the Worshipful Master. 'What final test are you goin' on about, George Aggy? He delivered the mail!' Groat protested. 'Lord Vetinari appointed him postmaster and he's walked the Walk!'

'Vetinari? He's only been around five minutes! Who's he to say who's postmaster? Was his father a postman? No! Or his grandfather? Look at the men he's been sending! You said they were sneaky devils who didn't have a drop of Post Office ink in their blood!'

'I think this one might be able to—' Groat began. 'He can take the ultimate test,' said the Worshipful Master sternly. 'You know what that is.'

'It'll be murder!' said Groat. 'You can't—'

'I ain't telling you again, young Tolly, you just shut your mouth! Well, Mister Postmaster? Will you face the postman's greatest challenge? Will you face . . .' the voice paused for effect and just in case there might be a few bars of portentous music, 'the Enemy at the Gate?'

'Face it and o'ercome it, if you demand it!' said Moist. The fool had called him Postmaster! It was working! Sound as if you're in charge and they start to believe it! Oh, and 'o'er' had been a good touch, too. 'We do! Oh yes, we do!' chorused the robed postmen. Groat, a bearded shadow in the gloom, took Moist's hand and, to his amazement, shook it. 'Sorry about this, Mr Lipwig,' he said. 'Din't expect this at all. They're cheating. But you'll be fine. You just rely on Senior Postman Groat, sir.' He drew his hand away, and Moist felt something small and cold in his palm. He closed his fist over it. Didn't expect it at all?'

'Right, Postmaster,' said the Worshipful Master. 'This is a simple test. All you have to do, right, is still be standing here, on your feet, in one minute's time, all right? Run for it, lads!' There was a swishing of robes and scurrying of feet and a distant door slammed. Moist was left standing in silent, pigeon-smelling gloom. What other test could there be? He tried to remember all the words on the front of the building. Trolls? Dragons? Green things with teeth? He opened his hand to see what it was that Groat had slipped him. It looked very much like a whistle. Somewhere in the darkness a door opened, and shut again. It was followed by the distant sound of paws moving purposefully. Dogs. Moist turned and ran down the hall to the plinth, and scrambled on to it. It wouldn't be much of a problem for large dogs, but at least it would put their heads at kicking height. Then there was a bark, and Moist's face broke into a smile. You only ever needed to hear that bark once. It wasn't a particularly aggressive one, because it was made by a mouth capable of

crushing a skull. You didn't need too much extra advertising when you could do that. News got around. This was going to be . . . ironic. They'd actually got hold of Lipwigzers! Moist waited until he could see the eyes in the lantern light before hesaid,'Schlat!' The dogs stopped, and stared at Moist. Clearly, they were thinking, something is wrong here. He sighed, and slipped down off the pedestal. 'Look,' he said, placing a hand on each rump and exerting downward pressure. 'One fact everyone knows is that no female Lipwigzers have ever been let out of the country. That keeps the breed price high . . . Schlat! I said! . . . and every puppy is trained to Lipwigzian commands! This is the old country talking, boys! Schlat!' The dogs sat down instantly. 'Good boys,' said Moist. It was true what people like his grandfather said: once you got past their ability to bite through a whole leg in one go, they were very nice animals. He cupped his hands and shouted: 'Gentlemen? It's safe for you to come in now!' The postmen would be listening, that was certain. They'd be waiting for snarls and screams. The distant door opened. 'Come forward!' snapped Moist. The dogs turned to look at the huddle of approaching postmen. They growled, too, in one long, uninterrupted rumble. Now he could see the mysterious Order clearly. They were robed, of course, because you couldn't have a secret order without robes. They had pushed the hoods back now, and each man* was wearing a peaked cap with a bird skeleton wired to it. * Women are always significantly under-represented in secret orders. 'Now, sir, we knew Tolliver'd slip you the dog whistle—' one of them began, looking nervously at the Lipwigzers. 'This?' said Moist, opening his hand. 'I didn't use it. It only makes 'em angry.' The postmen stared at the sitting dogs. 'But you got 'em to sit—' one began. 'I can get them to do other things,' said Moist levelly. 'I just have to say the word.'

'Er . . . there's a couple of lads outside with muzzles, if it's all the same to you, sir,' said Groat, as the Order backed away. 'We're heridititerrilyly wary of dogs. It's a postman thing.'

'I can assure you that the control my voice has over them at the moment is stronger than steel,' said Moist. This was probably garbage, but it was good garbage. The growl from one of the dogs had taken on the edge it tended to get just before the creature became a tooth-tipped projectile. 'Vodit!' shouted Moist. 'Sorry about this, gentlemen,' he added. 'I think you make them nervous. They can smell fear, as you probably know.'

'Look, we're really sorry, all right?' said the one whose voice suggested to Moist that he had been the Worshipful Master. 'We had to be sure, all right?'

'I'm the postmaster, then?' said Moist. 'Absolutely, sir. No problem at all. Welcome, O Postmaster!' Quick learner, Moist thought. 'I think I'll just—' he began, as the double doors opened at the other end of the hall. Mr Pump entered, carrying a large box. It should be quite hard to open a big pair of doors while carrying something in both hands, but not if you're a golem. They just walk at them. The doors can

choose to open or try to stay shut, it's up to them. The dogs took off like fireworks. The postmen took off in the opposite direction, climbing on to the dais behind Moist with commendable speed for such elderly men. Mr Pump plodded forward, crushing underfoot the debris of the Walk. He rocked as the creatures struck him, and then patiently put down the box and picked up the dogs by the scruff of their necks. 'There Are Some Gentlemen Outside With Nets And Gloves And Extremely Thick Clothing, Mr Lipvig,' he said. 'They Say They Work For A Mr Harry King. They Want To Know If You Have Finished With These Dogs.'

'Harry King?' said Moist. 'He's a big scrap merchant, sir,' said Groat. 'I expect the dogs was borrowed off of him. He turns 'em loose in his yards at night.'

'No burglar gets in, eh?'

'I think he's quite happy if they get in, sir. Saves having to feed the dogs.'

'Hah! Please take them away, Mr Pump,' said Moist. Lipwigzers! It had been so easy. As they watched the golem turn round with a whimpering dog under each arm, he added: 'Mr King must be doing well, then, to run Lipwigzers as common guard dogs!'

'Lipwigzers? Harry King? Bless you, sir, old Harry wouldn't buy posh foreign dogs when he can buy crossbreeds, not him!' said Groat. 'Probably a bit of Lipwigzer in 'em, I dare say, probably the worst bits. Hah, a purebred Lipwigzer prob'ly wouldn't last five minutes against some of the mongrels in our alleys. Some of'em has got crocodile in 'em.' There was a moment of silence and then Moist said, in a faraway voice: 'So . . . definitely not imported purebreds, you think?'

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